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HareBrain

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Tolkien was a big one for using semi-colons before conjunctions, even when there were no commas in the sentence. I think I picked it up from him. But I can see that most of his could be replaced by commas without any loss of effect.
 

The Judge

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There's sometimes a little confusion about the verb "to be" so here is a tidied version of a post in a thread where the issue arose earlier in the year.


Firstly, the verb "to be" can appear weak, so something like "She was at the door, waiting" might be better as "She stood at the door, waiting". Or it might not. It depends on what's happening around it in the rest of the sentence or paragraph. I'd always look for a stronger, more descriptive verb instead of "was", but it isn't the end of civilisation as we know it if it appears. Having said that, too many of anything in a paragraph can be ungainly and "was" is a particular offender in this respect.

Some sites will tell you that the use of eg "was" in a sentence is the passive voice. It isn't. Passive voice usually includes the verb "to be" in some form, but that's a wholly separate issue. The use of "by" is another tell-tale of passive voice eg "I was stunned by the revelations." There are good posts about this above, including Peter Graham's post at #93. The active voice is generally accepted as being more direct and forceful and... um... active, so it's a good idea to use it more than passive voice. If you're worried that your prose is riddled with passivity, search for "by" and see if that helps you locate clauses which could be changed to active eg "The revelations stunned me" (though in that particular case I'd go with the passive as it put the emphasis on me and my having been stunned).

And separate from both those is the use of "was" in something like "I was waiting at the door" which is merely the verb "to wait" in its past continuous tense as opposed to its simple past of "I waited at the door". Using the continuous form of a verb in present or past tense is perfectly acceptable, and can be a matter of preference eg "He was whistling as he ran upstairs" or "He whistled as he ran upstairs" both mean the same thing, and there's no right or wrong, though the latter is tauter. But continuous past can often be the best choice or necessary for the sentence eg "He was listening at the door when she burst into the room" shows he's been there some while, and means something very different from "He listened at the door when she burst into the room" -- apart from reading oddly, the latter implies that his listening is a habit whenever she dashes inside.
 

Ihe

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I've always liked reading up on grammar and other technicalities of writing. I went over this thread at the start of my "fooliganing" (new word of mine, patent pending) here at the Chrons, and now skimmed it a second time, which confirms my initial perception: this is a gold mine. Thanks to everyone who contributes. Being the petty, envious wretch I am, I want to be part of this magnificent club, so I'll tackle a small thing I read somewhere, long time ago, that caught my eye because it's so simple you don't see it when it happens:

>Concurrency of participle phrases:

Participle phrases (they have -ing verbs) with multiple actions taking place in the span of a sentence make these actions simultaneous (concurrent). This can quicken pace and add a sense of liveliness to the sentence. But beware of the wrong use of concurrency, which usually happens by pairing 2 actions that are not truly simultaneous, ie: Kicking him in the shins, Clara ran away.--These two actions cannot be happening simultaneously. You can't kick someone and at the same time put distance between you and them. It would be more correct to make the action sequential: you kick, then you run.

And now, the correct way to use concurrency: Kicking him in the shins, Clara cursed him.--Both of these actions can be happening at the same time.

This might be a finicky rule, and God knows I do it, and I've seen pros do it as well, but nevertheless, it's something to at least consider.



Now that I've added my little grain of "knowledge" to the grammatical mountain, I hope to do a longer post on pace next, which I've been researching on-and-off for some time.
 

The Judge

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Info-dumps

There's at least one post here about info-dumping, but I thought another wouldn't go amiss in the circumstances.

Usually this relates to the dumping of detail about the backstory or -- particularly in SF -- the technology. It also, though, encompasses excessive world-building detail. We are all guilty of it. We all think "This is really cool stuff about the world, I've got to get this in" or "This is really important for the reader to know, I've got to put this in". Sometimes we may even be right. But...

Think of information for your story -- whether world-bulding, backstory or technology -- as an iceberg. What you should have is a great mountain of detail, but only a very small part of it should be on view to the reader, with the vast bulk of it lying unseen below the surface. A story which has only that small amount above surface and nothing beneath is liable to be unstable, and drift all over the place with no depth or characterisation. Conversely, a story which has the whole iceberg above water is liable to overwhelm the reader and frighten her off.

So the first thing to do is decide what is truly important for the reader and must be on the surface, and what should be kept out of sight. Almost certainly, what is vitally important, without which the story cannot make sense, will be much less than you might think.

Having said that, a story which only has the bare plot and no adornment is going to be flat, so some world-building and extra detail is helpful even if not strictly necessary. So that's the second thing to decide -- what adds to the story's texture without overloading it and making it unreadable.

Having set out what should be included, you must then work out how to include it.

If it's stuff that's important, so the fact the ion-cannons can't perform when at warp -- which means they cannot kill the baddie when they need to -- then get it out there in as few words as possible and never in a "As you know, Dave" conversation. Don't give the reasons why it isn't possible unless that's also a plot point (or you are writing hard/military SF when every single piece of technology must, apparently, be described in loving detail...), at least not at first. Drop the reasons why in a later scene, so you're not stopping the flow of the story all at one go.

If it's stuff that is just world building then "The birds' feathers were red and gold" gets the information out there, but is, frankly, boring. Something like "Sunlight glinted off the red and gold of the birds' feathers" is still pretty basic, but there is immediately more life in it. Even better would be something to reflect the POV character's emotions -- so if she is happy, the red and gold feathers fill her with joy; if she's sad, the gold is dulled; if she's fearful, the red is like drops of blood. Or make the birds reflect what is happening within the story, or prefigure what might happen -- if there is a romantic subplot then "As the male bird performed his courtship dance, the red and gold of his feathers gleamed"; if there is war coming "The two male birds tore at each other in a frenzy, red and gold feathers shredded and stained with blood".

Build your iceberg. Make it solid and thick and very big. Then submerge it, and allow only the tip of it to show in the novel, drawing the interested reader towards it, but making it clear there are depths, huge interesting depths, which at a later stage you might allow them to see if they dare to take to the water and dive in.
 

Hoverdasher

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dialogue punctuation

I'm sure it's in here a lot, but I thought I've been working on it a bit recently, and it is the only technical thing I'm confident at, so I'd stick up a post. (how brave am I? in the toolbox - garghh.)

If you are using a dialogue tag like he said, commented, asked, added, confirmed, then its a comma either before the dialogue:

He said, "You're getting ideas above your station, Springs."

or a comma at the end:

"You're getting ideas about your station, Springs," he said.

If the he said is in the middle of a sentence like this it's a run on, so a comma at each side

"I've noticed," he said, "that you're getting ideas above your station."

If its a disrupted speech that isn't a run on sentence ie is two seperate sentence then it's a comma before the dialogue tag and then a full stop and a capital to start the next sentence.

"I've noticed you're getting ideas above your station," he said. "I have to say, it's making me nervous."


action tags

If, instead of a dialogue tag you're using action at the start or end, the comma is replaced by a full stop. So:

"I'm getting ideas above my station." Springs stood up and made for the exit.

Or

Springs stopped at the door. "And now they're probably getting quite boring."

If you have an interrupted sentence with an action tag it's full stops.

"I'm getting near the end." She chewed her pen. "Which can't be a bad thing."

And if you have an exclamation mark or a question mark they take the place of either or the full stop.

So

"Above my station!" She flounched out.
or
"How dare you!" she exclaimed and flounched out.

And lastly, Harebrain's advice, which I use all the time for checking:
if it doesn't read right when you take out the actions or dialogue tags, the punctuation isn't right.

Right, need to lie down now. The toolbox... I'll need a year to recover. J.
Just a note to let you know that this has been more helpful to me than all those "how to write" books I bought, combined! I've printed, and I am about to create a new little piece for practicing this. I just can't believe how grateful I am about this post! Thank You Jo...so, so much.

Hoverdasher
 

Hoverdasher

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I am hoping we can use this thread as a means of offering advice as to some of the common stylistic, grammatical and syntactical traps and pitfalls awaiting the new writer. If story and plot are the bricks and mortar of writing, then technique, imagery, word power and confidence with the language are surely the trowels, wheelbarrows, plumb lines, ties and PTFE tape needed for the job.

As many have pointed out, there are no "rules" as such. But there are guidelines and there are topics for discussion. I really hope that we can get a good number of contributions here and perhaps build up a "bank" of hints and tips for those who post in Critiques.

Right, I'll start with:-

INFO DUMPING

Info dumping is the introduction of large amounts of apparently irrelevant background and explanatory information which does not take the immediate action forwards (and may even disrupt it entirely) and which is all too often presented in a bland fashion like a shopping list.

An example:-

"Peter opened the gate. The gate was wooden. He had come home as soon as he was called. Mrs Graham had said it was urgent and Peter was worried. Peter was very tall, standing seven foot three inches in height. He was very friendly and a bit scatty and his clothes were strange. He wore an old-fashioned Edwardian frock coat which he had bought from a vintage clothes shop in Leeds. It was plum velvet in colour and edged in lace. It had two pockets. He had a pipe, some dog biscuits, three elastic bands and a little tin of Gawith's Kendal snuff in one of the pockets. He wore flared trousers and silver stack heeled boots which were rubber soled with leather uppers. He was wearing a top hat and blue sunglasses. He was from Cumbria, which was a mountainous and rural region in the North west of England, where Wordsworth was from.

Mrs Graham ran towards him to tell him that the Scots had invaded again and that he was needed at the muster. The muster took place every time the beacons were lit. The Scots raided regularly, taking catttle, sheep and prisoners back across the border. The muster was made up of local men, led by the local village elders. Peter was an elder because he was old.

"Thank God you're here," she shouted. "The Scots have invaded again - you're needed at the muster!"


An OTT example, but the physical description of Peter is long, dry, boring to read and disrupts the immediacy of the action.

A better way to impart this sort of information is to work with a light touch - drop hints, make passing comments or weave things into dialogue or description. It may take longer to bring out all of the facts, but it will be more interesting to read. Remember that writing a book is a marathon rather than a race, so there is plenty of time to say everything that needs to be said. Keep it lean - if you are saying something that is not necessary or relevant to the scene you are describing, think whether you need to say it there or even at all.

Also avoid the trap of writing info dump masquerading as dialogue. This happens when two characters who supposedly know each other well start talking like this:-

"Hi, Dave" said Peter. "Fancy coming to the pub tonight?"

"Do you mean the only pub in the village, which we go to every Friday?" replied Dave.

"That's right! The Lamb and Flag on Chapel Street, where they sell Real Ale and have a Quiz night on Thursdays."

"I'd love to go," said Dave. "Do you think we'll see Sally, who is the landlady?"

"I should think so. She has worked there every night for the last seven years and only rarely takes a holiday."


Regards,

Peter
I've printed this, because, sadly--I've discovered I'm guilty of doing this.

I have a question that may come up, as I have just started my journey through this toolbox.

In the "how to write" books, one of the seven elements is, description. How do we not info-dump when writing descriptive prose? Example. A character wakes up in a new world, confused. The world they see is described through the character's point of view. Almost a full chapter is spent on this, interspersed with the introduction of a nefarious creature, and the character's surprise when he find's himself having a conversation with the serpent/dragon-like creature. The character is human. Is descriptive writing like this just me info dumping, again?

Oh, and this whole thread is proving more immediately useful to me than even the "how to write" books I purchased. So, thanks for putting this up. I'm able to practice it, right away in little practice shorts...I appreciate this.

H.
 

The Judge

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In the "how to write" books, one of the seven elements is, description. How do we not info-dump when writing descriptive prose?
Five or six posts above this one is one from me headed "Info-dumps" which gives some advice on this point.

People have different levels of tolerance for description, but for most purposes having more than a couple of paragraphs at any one time is likely to lose your reader -- we simply can't emulate Thomas Hardy in The Return of the Native with the entire first thousand pages devoted to Egdon sodding Heath.**

I'd always suggest you intersperse description with something happening. If someone is catapulted into the middle of a rain forest, don't spend pages describing the trees and lianas and what not while he's just standing around doing nothing. Instead, have him hiking through, chopping lianas down, nearly treading on giant spiders, blundering into huge butterflies or whatever. Action nearly always trumps description.


** OK, a thousand might be a slight exaggeration, but it certainly felt like it when I was having to plough through the damn thing at school.
 

Hoverdasher

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I'm by no means an expert on this aspect, but this is closely related to the INFO-DUMP problem; so, in the best Blue Peter tradition, this is something I prepared earlier** relating to:

SHOWING -v- TELLING

Truscott was a foul-mouthed sexist buffoon and Claire felt nothing but contempt for him.

This is all telling. If there is a tell-show scale, this is right at one end.

'I feel nothing but contempt for that man, Truscott,' Claire confessed. 'He is a foul-mouthed, sexist buffoon.'
This is still telling, even though it is being said by Claire, because we are being told (a) what she thinks and (b) what we should be thinking about him. On the tell-show scale, it is a little along from the first option, because it is being given through Claire's voice and if nothing else it shows something about her (ie that she is the kind of woman who forms judgements of this kind and uses this sort of language).

'I tell you what, lass. That girl over there is a right cracker.' Truscott pointed out one of the visiting dignitaries. 'Reckon I could get into her knickers? Or d'you think she's one of those f***ing lezzies?'
Claire stared at him for a moment before turning away without replying.

This is all showing. We are not told what to think about either of them, nor what Claire is thinking about Truscott. We are being shown what is happening and we have to draw our own conclusions from it. On the tell-show scale, this is right at the opposite end from the first option.

Of course there is a problem with the third option. There is a risk that your readers might not realise what Claire is thinking when she turns away. (Even worse, some might not understand that Truscott is a foul-mouthed buffoon - they might see him as a straight-talking figure who has a good head on his shoulders. :eek: ) One way to avoid that is to use a few judicious adjectives/adverbs/comments - Claire could stare at him in disbelief or disgust or contempt; or she could turn away with a look of scorn in her eyes; or she could make a mental note to lodge an official complaint about him. But as soon as you start doing this, you are sliding back along the tell-show scale - how far you slide depends on how much detail of that kind you put in.

The other point is that option 1 is over and done with in 15 words; option 3 is a para of nearly 50.

Sometimes, telling is necessary, or at least, is the best available option - if the information needs to be given, then giving it quickly and smoothly before getting into the action can be preferable. Like everything in writing, it's a question of degree.

J

** on another thread. I don't have banks of these things just waiting to be wheeled out.
This reminds me of my habit of info-dumping I am working on breaking through these shorts I've been creating for P. O. V. practice. I tend to go the extreme of telling and come up short with the showing. It takes a great deal of thinking ahead in imagination or through drawings, films, whatever helps, for me to know what I want to show. Now, for some practice with actually doing this. I'm making a binder--these posts are powerful. But, I've got four things to work on, so I'm going to come back for more another day. I'm putting all that I print here in a binder to keep as a tangible took kit while I do these practice shorts.

Awww--why did I miss this from the beginning?! I think I found a pearl, here! This Toolbox is proving, amazing.

H.
 

Hoverdasher

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Five or six posts above this one is one from me headed "Info-dumps" which gives some advice on this point.

People have different levels of tolerance for description, but for most purposes having more than a couple of paragraphs at any one time is likely to lose your reader -- we simply can't emulate Thomas Hardy in The Return of the Native with the entire first thousand pages devoted to Egdon sodding Heath.**

I'd always suggest you intersperse description with something happening. If someone is catapulted into the middle of a rain forest, don't spend pages describing the trees and lianas and what not while he's just standing around doing nothing. Instead, have him hiking through, chopping lianas down, nearly treading on giant spiders, blundering into huge butterflies or whatever. Action nearly always trumps description.


** OK, a thousand might be a slight exaggeration, but it certainly felt like it when I was having to plough through the damn thing at school.
Thanks, Judge. I'm working hard--and now I have some things to sink my teeth into! If you guys published this whole thread, you'd have a better toolbox for new writers than any of the books I bought last week. Thank you, again.

H.
 

Jo Zebedee

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blah - flags. So many flags.
Just a note to let you know that this has been more helpful to me than all those "how to write" books I bought, combined! I've printed, and I am about to create a new little piece for practicing this. I just can't believe how grateful I am about this post! Thank You Jo...so, so much.

Hoverdasher
You're very welcome - it's far from the most useful post in the thread :)
 

SPoots

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dialogue punctuation

I'm sure it's in here a lot, but I thought I've been working on it a bit recently, and it is the only technical thing I'm confident at, so I'd stick up a post. (how brave am I? in the toolbox - garghh.)

If you are using a dialogue tag like he said, commented, asked, added, confirmed, then its a comma either before the dialogue:

He said, "You're getting ideas above your station, Springs."

or a comma at the end:

"You're getting ideas about your station, Springs," he said.

If the he said is in the middle of a sentence like this it's a run on, so a comma at each side

"I've noticed," he said, "that you're getting ideas above your station."

If its a disrupted speech that isn't a run on sentence ie is two seperate sentence then it's a comma before the dialogue tag and then a full stop and a capital to start the next sentence.

"I've noticed you're getting ideas above your station," he said. "I have to say, it's making me nervous."


action tags

If, instead of a dialogue tag you're using action at the start or end, the comma is replaced by a full stop. So:

"I'm getting ideas above my station." Springs stood up and made for the exit.

Or

Springs stopped at the door. "And now they're probably getting quite boring."

If you have an interrupted sentence with an action tag it's full stops.

"I'm getting near the end." She chewed her pen. "Which can't be a bad thing."

And if you have an exclamation mark or a question mark they take the place of either or the full stop.

So

"Above my station!" She flounched out.
or
"How dare you!" she exclaimed and flounched out.

And lastly, Harebrain's advice, which I use all the time for checking:
if it doesn't read right when you take out the actions or dialogue tags, the punctuation isn't right.

Right, need to lie down now. The toolbox... I'll need a year to recover. J.
This was precisely what I needed, thanks.
 

Bashfull

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Thanks, Pyan.

THE APOSTROPHE

Can be used in many exciting ways, but most commonly is used to denote the possessive (something belonging to somebody) or a missing letter (or letters).

1. Possessive use is fairly straighforwards. In the singular, it goes like this:-

Peter's car

Pyan's tentacles

Judge's ermine-trimmed robes of judicial office


When there is more than one possessor, the apostrophe comes after the 's':-

The Smiths' children - the Smiths here being used in the plural - in other words, the whole family or at least both parents.


This allows you to differentiate between singular and plural when you read:-

The cow's hooves - one cow.

The cows' hooves - more than one cow.


The first big caveat is when the singular already ends in 's'. In that case, the apostrophe also comes after the 's':-

Tom Burness' cat

The second big caveat is that you don't use an apostrophe when using "its" in the possessive sense:-

Its teeth



2. When denoting a missing letter, an apostrophe goes wherever the missing letter is:-

You're (a contraction of 'you are')

They've (they have)

She'd (she had or she would)

Peter'll (Peter will or Peter shall)

Fo'c'sle (forecastle - although strictly this should be either fo'c's'le or fo'c'stle)

It's (it is - see why you don't use it for the possessive now?)


The big pitfall in apostrophe use is what is known as the grocer's apostrophe (or grocers' apostrophe if there is more than one grocer!), which is when someone uses an apostrophe to denote the plural:-

Tomato's

Ten year's ago

As the years and the tomatoes don't possess anything and as there are no missing letters, there is no apostrophe.

Regards (and, of course, never Regard's!),

Peter
I had to break things off with Apostrophe - too possessive.
 
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sknox

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Here's my contribution, because it has been grumbling at me. It goes by the lovely descriptor of a terminal ellipsis. How does one punctuate a terminal ellipsis in dialog? Surely a question that can only be asked by writers.

Here's an example: “That’s wonderful, Lyssie, but …” Detta began.

Now, is it
“That’s wonderful, Lysse, but I …,” Detta began.
“That’s wonderful, Lysse, but I,” Detta began.
“That’s wonderful, Lysse, but I…” Detta began. (notice there's no space after the pronoun)
or other variations.

It's the first one. Some will ask about terminal punctuation such as a question mark or an exclamation point, but I'll argue that these cannot come after an ellipse because the question or exclamation is yet incomplete. It gets even more fun if if the speaker is quoting someone. The solution to that is left as an exercise for the student. ;-)
 

Ursa major

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The non-technical answer is that, to me, the comma doesn't look correct (particularly with that space before the ellipsis). ;) *cough*


As it happens, what is catching my attention is the speech tag, something that speech tags should not really do.

First of all, shouldn't the reader realise that this was the first thing that Detta said -- was about to say -- whatever it was she wanted to say, because she hadn't said anything before? If it's clear who is speaking (e.g. only Detta and Lysse are present), why have it at all?

Second, I'm not that sure that replacing 'began' with 'said' would be much of an improvement... and I think this because the whole point of the ellipsis is to leave the spoken sentence hanging incomplete. Yet, by continuing with a speech tag, the sentence is being continued. Personally, I think it would be better to imply who is speaking (if this is required) by having Detta do something, something linked to the reason she cannot continue**. So if Detta is, say, embarrassed to say what she couldn't say out loud, you might have:

“That’s wonderful, Lysse, but I…” Detta looked away.
So, in a way, your second and third examples also don't work, for me***, because they all keep the sentence going.


Going back to your comment about the use of question and exclamation marks after an ellipsis, I think the question mark has its use, indicating the way the sentence is spoken. So

"You know the way John looks at you..."
would not be spoken, would not sound, the same as:

"You know the way John looks at you...?"
and would be interpreted differently by both the listener and the reader.

One could argue the same is true of an exclamation mark, if only because its use would indicate that the sentence is being exclaimed. However, exclamation marks can call attention to themselves in a way that full stops, commas (give or take your example above) and question marks don't, which is why they should be used sparingly.



** - I'm assuming you follow the convention that ellipses indicate spoken sentences tailing off -- with a bare ellipsis indicating an incomplete thought, whereas ones with a follwing full stop (period), question mark or exclamation mark indicating that the sentence is complete, but spoken differently to the way the sentence would be without the ellipsis -- with interrupted speech being indicated by using a dash (probably an em-dash).

*** - These are, of course, my personal thoughts and should be taken as such.
 

Mouse

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No comma. I use ellipses all the time (just checked my last novel and that has 117 of them!). I have this, for example, in a novel which has been through a professional edit: “What…?” He didn’t really know how to finish his sentence, so he didn’t bother.
 

sknox

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Thanks for the replies. Chicago Manual of Style would disagree, but I don't really turn to that for writing fiction. I'll be hiring an editor for my WIP. I'll write it the way that looks right to me and then see what she has to say about it.
 

Guillermo Stitch

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It's worth noting that whenever you come up against a technicality of writing that appears to be a consensual truth, or truism (eg, don't head hop, don't spend time on description or expect the reader to, show don't tell and all the old reliables) you are, as well as learning valuable guidleines that will steer your prose towards acceptability for the maximum number of people, being handed a set of tools which you can use to good effect - ie, any of these rules can be deliberately subverted for good reason and with good results.
 
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